Last week, as the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy lumbered on and its companion news story, the infamous Koran burning that wasn't, reached its anticlimactic culmination, we saw a spectacular example of one of the Right Wing's favorite electoral strategies: pick a target, stoke fear, and reap the political benefits of nativist backlash.
The Right is in the midst of a prolific run of fear campaigns -- against Muslims, against immigrants, against gay people, against "elites." In itself, that might not be news; the Right has been doing it for years. What is remarkable is how frequently, in the attempt to narrow the definition of who is a real American, the President of the United States himself is cast as the leader of an amorphous and scary invasion of people who are aren't from around here.
This smear has been floating around the edges of our political conversation since before President Obama was even elected, but it reached a new level of undisguised vitriol when Newt Gingrich -- former Speaker of the House and aspiring 2012 presidential candidate -- told the National Review that Obama displays "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," and that he "happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president."
Gingrich, at least, can no longer be accused of dog-whistle politics. He has come right out to say what many on the Right have been insinuating since Obama appeared on the political scene -- that the President is an un-American outsider who has pulled a fast one on the American people.
There is no need to further rebut Gingrich's remarks on factual grounds -- Marc Ambinder and Adam Serwer, among many others, have already demolished the flimsy basis for his assertions.
Gingrich's comments -- a response to a column along similar ridiculous lines by Dinesh D'Souza -- couldn't have much to do with the former speaker's thoughts on Obama's foreign policy. Instead, they were a deliberate appeal to the idea that the Right has been pushing of Obama as a strange and malicious "other."
Gingrich's remarks are only the most recent, and blatant, in a long line of right-wing fear-mongering about the president. Just last week, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, chair of the Republican Governors Association and another possible 2012 presidential contender, said of Obama, "This is a president that we know less about than any other president in history." This remark was factually untrue -- Obama wrote a book of his life story and much of the nation celebrated his personal story throughout a very lengthy campaign -- but served to advance the right-wing narrative about Obama's mysterious origins.
And that narrative has worked in their favor. Last month, a poll found that a quarter of Americans aren't convinced that Obama was born in the U.S. In another poll, nearly one in five said they believed that Obama was a Muslim -- a sharp increase from the response to the same question a year ago. Kyle Mantyla at People For's Right Wing Watch blog has been reporting that "birthers" -- those demanding copies of Obama's readily available Hawaiian birth certificate -- are now being joined by those demanding proof of Obama's baptism and Christian faith.
The campaign to frame Obama as a foreign invader -- and, as Gingrich has said, "the most radical president in American history" -- has been intimately tied in with the same fear-mongering that led to the outrageous reaction to the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan and that has stoked the kind of fear of immigrants that has led to racial profiling laws in places like Arizona. In troubled times, it's convenient to blame everyone -- both outsiders and those in power. In Obama, the irrational Right won the lottery.
The attempt to paint Obama as a dangerous foreign radical has very real, and scary consequences. A year ago, we reported on the revival of violent anti-government extremism in reaction to Obama's election. Since then, we have seen a violent strain in certain parts of the Tea Party movement -- from Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle insisting that "Second Amendment remedies" might be needed against "domestic enemies" to an Idaho gubernatorial candidate last year suggesting the issue of "Obama tags" for hunting the president.
But the impact of the Right's whisper campaign against Obama goes far beyond the president. The right-wing leaders who have been pushing, or tepidly refuting, lies about the president are often the same people who are stoking resentment against American Muslims, Latinos, and gay people. They are peddling a very narrow idea of what it means to be, as Sarah Palin once put it, part of "the real America." This definition of "the real America" doesn't include immigrants or their children; it doesn't include people of color; it doesn't include gay people.
When Gingrich and his allies build a myth about a foreign con artist president, they imply that all those who fall outside the narrowly defined "real America" are to be viewed with distrust. That may be an effective electoral strategy in the short run, but in the long run it stokes real divisions and creates real harm. And, it will not be an effective long-term strategy for the Right. The United States is a vibrantly diverse country and is growing more so. If the Right continues to insult and exclude entire groups of people, its politics will rapidly become obsolete.